Interview with Zeynep Ton, Author of The Good Jobs Strategy

The Good Jobs Strategy by Zeynep Ton, published in January, argues that retailers should change low-level jobs in four ways:

  1. Offer fewer choices — fewer versions of each product.
  2. Standardize common tasks and empower employees to handle unusual situations.
  3. Cross-train employees so that each employee can do several jobs.
  4. Operate with slack, that is, hire more employees than seemingly necessary.

The brilliance of this book is that it addresses a major problem (bad jobs), includes substantial evidence and persuasive argument, is practical, and is exceedingly non-obvious (judging by how many retailers already follow her recommendations). Ton is an MIT business school professor whose area of expertise is operations.

I interviewed her by email. Continue reading “Interview with Zeynep Ton, Author of The Good Jobs Strategy

Why Alicia Juarrero Got Mad at Terry Deacon

In response to allegations that Terry Deacon, a Berkeley professor, plagiarized from Alicia Juarrero, a professor at tried to smear Michael Lissack, one of the accusers. Less obvious is that the committee that investigated the allegations ignored their core: The overlap with Juarrero is relentless. It goes on and on. Juarrero explained this to me when I asked her what she thought of the committee report:

I’m disappointed, but not surprised. Not sure what the difference is between “reckless” (which their definition of plagiarism includes) and “negligent” (which they critiqued as a “novel interpretation” of plagiarism). I’ll tell you how my cri de coeur spreadsheet came about: as I read Deacon [Incomplete Nature] I got angrier and angrier, so I decided to start the spreadsheet. The index in my own book [Dynamics in Action] is very bad (my fault, my inexperience) and so I was having a hard time finding the parallel material in my own work. I knew I had said something to that effect somewhere in the book but couldn’t remember where and couldn’t find the entry in my own index. But suddenly, a pattern emerged: All I had to do was read on a few pages or paragraphs further down from the previous “problem,” and there would be the next item. This happened over and over again in huge chunks of the work (which I highlighted to point out the big chunks of seriatim similarities) — it’s the seriatimness (!) that’s so damning and to me, clear evidence this wasn’t just someone who vaguely remembered what I had said in a talk and then reconstructed the ideas for himself. The sheer number and sequential nature of the similarities are just too improbable to be a coincidence, or two people working in the same field. He was quite clever about it. He hid it with neologisms, talking about whole-part instead of top-down causality, insisting that self-organization is not enough (and then turning around in advocating it), etc. And, of course, not discussing intentional action, which is the explicit subject of my book. Continue reading “Why Alicia Juarrero Got Mad at Terry Deacon”

Interview with a Shangri-La Dieter

A few days ago I asked Mark Qualls, a 59-year-old truck driver who lives in Longmont, Colorado, about his success with the Shangri-La Diet, which he posted about.

How did you learn about it?

Freakonomics.  When I read about you in that book, it made sense to me. The whole idea of a setpoint. I used to be an accountant. I weighed 290 pounds. I’m 6′ 2″. I lost 25 pounds when I started driving a truck. I’ve been there for almost 12 years. Around 260. I get a lot of exercise delivering groceries. I can eat anything I want but the idea of going on a diet makes me hungry.  My doctor said lose a bit of weight but I just couldn’t do it. Continue reading “Interview with a Shangri-La Dieter”

Seth Roberts Interview With Pictures

This sidebar appeared in an article about self-tracking (only for subscribers) by James Kennedy, who works at The Future Laboratory in London. The top photo is at a market near my apartment. Below that are photos of my sleep records, my morning-faces setup, my butter, and my kombucha brewing jars. Back then I was comparing three amounts of sugar (each jar a different amount). Now I’m comparing green tea/black tea ratios.

The Economics of Medical Hypotheses and Its Successor (part 2 of 2)

A successor to Medical Hypotheses, called Hypotheses in the Life Sciences, will be edited by William Bains and published by Buckingham University Press (BUP).

ROBERTS Does BUP hope to eventually make money from the successor journal? Or do they merely hope the subsidy required will decrease with time?

WILLIAM BAINS BUP is a small operation, and does not have the resources to subsidize Hypotheses in the Life Sciences beyond its start-up stage, so we hope to make enough money to break even fairly soon. Ultimately the aim is to be profitable. I for one am determined to put scientific quality first, and I have emphasized to BUP that I only want the journal to grow (and hence generate more revenue) when the quality of submissions allows it.

ROBERTS What led BUP to decide to publish the new journal?

BAINS I think a combination of similarity in philosophy and being in the right place at the right time. They thought it was an exciting project which would both raise their profile (in a good way) and make them money. Buckingham University is the UK’s only private university, and as such takes a heterodox, even iconoclastic view towards what the academic establishment says is writ in stone. The Chancellor has a robust approach to academic and individual freedom. So a journal trying to do something rather new, enabling those with good ideas but little power to be heard, fitted with their approach.  For me, an added advantage is that I deal directly with the man at the top. There are no intermediate layers of management to take decisions about the journal, and we discuss everything from philosophy to web page design. This is the sort of immediacy you do not get with a big publisher.

Part 1 (Bruce Charlton). Bioscience Hypotheses, a similar journal founded by Bains.

The Economics of Medical Hypotheses and Its Successor (part 1 of 2)

A successor to Medical Hypotheses, titled Hypotheses in the Life Sciences, will soon be published. I asked Bruce Charlton and William Bains, the founder of the new journal, about the economics of the situation.

ROBERTS Did Medical Hypotheses make money for Elsevier? How much did it cost to run per year (leaving aside time contributed by you and the editorial board)? How much of that did Elsevier pay?

BRUCE CHARLTON  Medical Hypotheses did for sure make money for Elsevier – but I was never allowed to see the accounts. Continue reading “The Economics of Medical Hypotheses and Its Successor (part 1 of 2)”

Interview for a Press Release

A writer for UC Berkeley media relations wanted to interview me for this press release about the Tsinghua Psychology department. I said I’d blogged a lot about Tsinghua but she said she wanted “fresh quotes”. So I wrote this:

Why did you decide to take this opportunity [become a professor at Tsinghua]?

Partly because I wanted to write more books — in addition to The Shangri-La Diet — and this job would let me, because I only teach one semester per year. Partly because I thought the undergraduates would be brilliant. Partly because I thought living in Beijing would be fascinating.

What have you learned/discovered?

How talented the students are. To get into Tsinghua as an undergraduate, you have to score extremely well on a nationwide test. Oh, so they’re bookish? Not quite. A month ago I went to a talent show put on by biomedical-engineering majors. One act was five girls dancing. After a few minutes someone told me that three of the girls were boys. I hadn’t noticed. It was really hard to tell.

Influenced by Mulan, perhaps.

Alexandra Carmichael on Random Acts of Kindness

Alexandra Carmichael is one of the founders of, whom I met at a Quantified Self meeting last year. A few days ago, she left an interesting comment on one of my posts:

I practice random acts of kindness, with a goal of helping at least 10 people a day (and at least 1 person I don’t know). I find this helps my mood toward the end of the day, when it is most likely to fall – no matter what else has happened that day, at least I’ve helped 10 people.

I asked her about it:

SETH Where did the idea come from?

ALEXANDRA It goes all the way back to my grandparents being Scout leaders – I was never in the Scouts myself but I observed how helpful and supportive they always were. Then during my university years when I was forming my life philosophy, I got to attend an incredible lecture by Jane Goodall. Her organization Roots & Shoots inspires people around the world to give back to the earth, animals, and people around them, with her amazing presence and the quote “Every individual can make a difference.” Service learning is also one of the things we thread into homeschooling our two daughters, along with design, simple living, and non-violent communication.

The specific goal of helping 10 people a day started last summer during a goal-setting weekend. I was curious to see if formalizing and quantifying something I had been doing in a fuzzier way would make a difference in my life, if measuring acts of kindness would result in an increased number of acts, or more friends, or help me with my chronic depression – plus I love quantifying things! 🙂 I don’t find it necessary to actually record how many people I help in a day, but I keep a rough running tally in my head as I go through the day to make sure it’s at least 10 – my kids like to help with this count too.

SETH What are some examples of these acts?

ALEXANDRA I do a lot of different things. If I get extra free tickets to events or conferences, I will pass them along to people who I think would love to go; I will offer to take a picture of a tourist family where one person inevitably gets left out behind the camera; I will connect people who I think would benefit from knowing each other; I will take two hours to listen and hug and support a child who is having a hard time learning a new skill; I will answer a newbie entrepreneur’s questions about how to get started in business or help them spread their message; I will help coordinate gatherings that I believe in (such as Quantified Self); I will hold the door for someone. It can be anything really, no matter how small.

SETH How have people reacted when you tell them about this?

ALEXANDRA The most frequent reaction is “That sounds too challenging to do every day – 10 people? Why not 1 or 2?” The second most frequent reaction is “You are inspiring me to make positive changes in my own life.” My answer to both is “I love helping people!”

SETH What have you learned?

ALEXANDRA if you help people, without wanting anything in return, you get help when you need it – often surprising help, and often more than you gave. I learned that helping people seems to make them like you more, so my number of online friends has skyrocketed (1500 on Twitter, 800 on Facebook, 500 on LinkedIn) – but close “in person” friends I choose to limit to a handful because of my tendency to get overwhelmed by frequent or shallow social situations. I learned that helping people does help with depression, because (a) you have something else to focus on outside of yourself and (b) you go through the day with an expectant air of wonder at who will be the next person you can help. I also learned that helping 10 people a day is really not a lot, and I often wind up helping 20 or more people in a day. Of course, this is only from my perspective – I can’t guarantee that all of these people actually feel helped, I just know that I tried to help.

SETH When you say “if you help people, without wanting anything in return, you get help when you need it – often surprising help, and often more than you gave” I’m not sure I understand. Can you give some examples?

ALEXANDRA It’s not so much that the people I help help me in return, but more that by spreading goodwill and being tuned in to what others need, I also became more aware of my own needs and started to feel a greater sense of self-worth, like I deserved to have my needs met. This is not something I was taught growing up, and I went through two bouts of major postpartum depression without asking for or getting the support I needed. I feel much more open about my needs now, which perhaps makes it easier for others to help me. So the change was more in me than in others.

In terms of specific examples, when I learned that I have a Tourette’s spectrum disorder, and tweeted that, I made an incredible new friend who has been through similar neurological issues, and who in our conversations of support and empathy has helped me more than I can ever thank him for. Also, when I decided to find some consulting work to support my family while we build CureTogether, a very welcoming door opened (soon to be made public), and offered me basically a dream position. I guess I needed to learn to ask for and accept help as well as to give it.

SETH Thanks, Alexandra. It’s especially interesting that helping others raised your feeling of self-worth. I wouldn’t have guessed it would have that effect.

Interview with Seth Roberts

Justin Wehr asked me some interview questions and decided not to publish my answers. I thought they were good questions. Here they are, reworded slightly, and my answers.

QUESTION Of the experimental treatments you have studied, which ones have the most positive effect on your life?

ANSWER From more to less effect:

  • Effect of morning faces on mood
  • Effect of fermented food on health
  • (tie) Effect of animal fat on health
  • (tie) Effect of omega-3 on health
  • Weight-control experiments.

QUESTION What about everyone else?

ANSWER  It depends on how far in the future you look. The morning faces stuff is the most important, I’m sure, but it’s also the hardest to implement. The fermented food stuff is easy to implement. It’s easy to eat more yogurt. So I believe that in the short term, the fermented foods stuff will have the most effect on others, in the long term, the faces stuff.

QUESTION Much of your research is related to the idea that we get sick because we live differently now than long ago. Can you explain this? Are there exceptions?

ANSWER Our genes were shaped to work well in one environment. Now our environment is quite different. All sorts of things go wrong — we don’t eat an optimal diet, for example — and our bodies malfunction in all sorts of ways. The exception is that once we know what an optimal diet (or environment) is we can assure it. For example, we can make sure we get the optimal amount of Vitamin C. The health problems caused by progress can be fixed, in other words, and we can emerge in better shape than ever before.

QUESTION How much time a day do you spend on self-experimentation?

ANSWER About ten minutes. Measuring various things, such as blood pressure and brain function.

QUESTION Why do few people self-experiment?

ANSWER Millions of people self-experiment. For example, millions of fat people try many different ways to lose weight. Professional scientists (e.g., med-school professors) do not self-experiment, at least publicly, because it is low-status, because it is frowned upon (by their colleagues), because it might be hard to publish the results, and because it won’t help them get grants.

QUESTION How do you determine an appropriate dosage for treatments that might have a good effect on what you measure but a bad effect on other things? For example, maybe animal fat is good for sleep but bad for other things.

ANSWER I don’t worry about it. Just as all electric appliances are designed to use the same house current, I’m sure all parts of our body are designed to work best with the same diet.

QUESTION Could advances in medical technologies (such as regenerative medicine) replace the need to live healthily? For example, if we could easily replace livers, maybe people could drink more.

ANSWER Not likely. Except that the more we know about nutrition the more we can replace our ancestors’ diet with a diet made up of the necessary nutrients. For example, I drink flaxseed oil to get omega-3. I’m sure our long-ago ancestors got omega-3 in other ways. So I no longer need to be like them. Basic nutrition isn’t medical technology, but it is a way in which it is easier to be healthy.

QUESTION What don’t you know, but wish you did?

ANSWER How to make book-writing as addictive as Wii Tennis.

Interview with Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen’s new book Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World has a lot to say about two topics in which I am especially interested: autism and human diversity. What can the rest of us learn from people with autism? What does the wide range of outcomes among autistic adults tell us about our world? I interviewed Tyler by email about his book.

ROBERTS If I remember correctly, you think a book should be new, true, and something else. What’s the something else?

COWEN The “something else” should cover at least two qualities.

First, if everyone read the book and was persuaded by it, would anything change for the better? An author should aim to write a book which matters.

Second, the book should reflect something the author really cares about. If the author doesn’t care, why should the reader?

ROBERTS What was the tipping point for this book — the event that made you say: I’m going to write a book about THIS?

COWEN To me it’s very important what an author is thinking about in his or her spare time, if the phrase “spare time” even applies to my life, which has an extreme blending of work and leisure time. Ideally that is what an author should be writing about. At some point you realize: “Hey, I am constantly thinking about xxxxx in my spare time!” And then you want to write it up.

I also hit up the idea of this book through pondering the lives of some particular individuals I know — and how much they *live* the thesis of my book — although I am not sure they would wish to be identified publicly.

ROBERTS Have you been to Autreat, the annual conference of Autism Network International, that you mention? If so, did it affect your thinking?

COWEN I haven’t been to Autreat, which for me is located somewhat inconveniently away from major cities (that is on purpose, I believe). I’m also not clear on exactly who is welcome, who needs an invitation, etc. Most conferences have a very high variance in quality across presentations and mostly one goes to meet one or two key people; often you don’t know in advance who they will be. I suspect the same logic applies to Autreat as well.

ROBERTS Do you think there are jobs that persons with autism do better than persons without autism?

COWEN Autistics often exhibit superior skills in attention to detail, pattern recognition, what I call “mental ordering,” and they have areas of strong preferred interests, in which they are very often superb self-educators. So yes, that will make many autistics very good at some jobs but also poorly suited for others. But I don’t want to generalize and say “autistics are better at job X,” that would be misleading. Across autistics there is a wide variety of cognitive skills and also problems. Engineering and computer science are the stereotypical areas where you expect to find higher than average rates of autism. While I suspect this is true in terms of the average, it can be misleading to focus on the stereotype precisely because of the high variance of skills and outcomes among autistics. One of the central issues in understanding autism is grasping the connection between the underlying unity of the phenomenon and the extreme variability of the results. In the short run, positive stereotypes can perform a useful educating function. But the more we present stereotypes, the more we are getting people away from coming to terms with that more fundamental issue, namely an understanding of the variance.

ROBERTS There is a basic biological phenomenon in which animals and plants under stress become more variable. Some say variability in the genotype has been released into the phenotype. Do you think the variance seen in autism has been “released” in some way?

COWEN I am not sure I understand the question…for one thing I am not sure what is the postulated increase in genetic stress…

ROBERTS Yes, it’s a confusing question. Let’s try this: What do you think the high variance of outcome seen in autism is telling us?

COWEN I’ll try to make that more concrete. One view of autism is that autistics have greater access to lower-level perception and such that access is essential for understanding autism. On one hand it gives autistics some special abilities, such as pattern recognition, certain kinds of information processing, and noticing small changes with great skill. (In some cases this also leads to savant-like abilities.) This also may be connected to some of the problems which autistics experience, such as hyper-sensitivities to some kinds of public environments.

It could be that non-autistics have a faculty, or faculties, which “cut off” or automatically organize a lot of this lower level perception. The implication would be that for autistics this faculty is somehow weaker, missing, or “broken.” The underlying unity in autism would be that this faculty is somehow different, relative to non-autistics. The resulting variance is that the difference in this faculty gives rise to abilities and disabilities which very much differ across autistics.

That’s one attempt to come to terms with both the unity of autism and the variance within it. It’s a tough question and we don’t know the right answer yet, in my view. What I outlined is just one hypothesis.

ROBERTS A clear parallel in the increased variance of autistic persons is the increased variance of left-handers. Left-handers have brain organizations that vary much more than the brain organization of right-handers. Right-handers are all one way; left-handers are all over the place. Do you see any similarities between left-handers and persons with autism?

COWEN I recall some claims that autistics are more likely to be left-handed but I’ve never looked into their veracity. There are so many false claims about autism that one must be very careful.

ADHD is another example of something which produces high variance outcomes. I don’t think it is correct to call it a disorder *per se*.

We’re just starting to wrap our heads around the “high variance” idea. Most people have the natural instinct to attach gross labels of good or bad even when a subtler approach is called for.

ROBERTS The term left-hander is confusing because left-handers aren’t the opposite of right-handers. The dichotomy is okay but the two sides are better labeled right-handers and non-right-handers. In other words, one group (right-handers) has something (a certain brain organization); the other group doesn’t have that brain organization. Then the vast difference in variance makes sense. How accurate would it be to say that non-autistics have something than autistics don’t have? (I’m left-handed, by the way.)

COWEN I would say we still don’t have a fully coherent definition of autism. And “have” is a tricky word. I think of autistic brains as different, rather than “normal” brains with “missing parts.” Some researchers postulate differences in the kind of connections autistic brains make. In thirty years I expect we will know much, much more than we do right now.

ROBERTS I hope this isn’t too self-indulgent: What do you make of the correlation between autism and digestive problems?

COWEN I don’t think there are convincing theories about either digestive problems causing autism or autism causing digestive problems. There is *maybe* a correlation through a common genetic cause, but even if that is true it is not very useful as a means of understanding autism. This is another area where there are many strong opinions, often stronger than are justified by the facts.

ROBERTS Another “assorted” question: I loved the study you mentioned where people with perfect pitch were more likely to be eccentric than those without perfect pitch. That’s quite a result. How did you learn about it?

COWEN There is a somewhat scattered literature on music, cognition, and society. It still awaits synthesis, it seems. Someone could write a very good popular book on the topic. (Maybe Gabriel Rossman is the guy to do it.) The more I browsed that literature, the more interesting results I found.

ROBERTS I don’t think I’ve done justice to your extremely original book but here is a last question. You talk about Thomas Schelling’s use of stories. Presumably in contrast to other econ professors. I think of story-telling being something that once upon a time everyone did — it was the usual way to teach. Why do you think Schelling told stories much more than those around him?

COWEN Thanks for the kind words. Schelling has a unique mind, as anyone who has known him will attest. I don’t know any other economist or social scientist who thinks like he does, but we’ve yet to figure out what exactly his unique element consists of. I would say that Schelling views story-telling as a path to social science wisdom. They’re not even anecdotes, they’re stories. Maybe that doesn’t sound convincing to an outsider, but it got him a Nobel Prize.

I am very interested in the topic of “styles of thought in economics.”

How Things Begin (Japan Traditional Foods)

I eat natto (fermented soybeans) once/day. Most of the natto I see in stores is from Japan (soybeans from America) but I found one local source: Japan Traditional Foods, in Sepastopol, California. Like many people I believe traditional diets are far healthier than modern ones. How can such diets, now almost extinct in rich countries, become popular again? To learn more about this, I interviewed the owner of Japan Traditional Foods, Minami Satoh.

How did your company begin?

I started it in 2006. We started to produce product in November 2008. So far natto is our only product. I went to business school at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, a private business school in Arizona, and graduated in 1983. After that, I worked for DuPont in Japan, but I wanted to work in the US. At DuPont, I did marketing of Teflon and Silverstone (a sister brand of Teflon). Then I worked for my father’s company selling wholesale steel pipe and tubes. I was successful but felt it was boring. I thought food would be more interesting. I acquired a small natto-making company (Yaguchi Foods) in Japan in 2004 or 2005. The owner had died. His relatives sold it to me.

In 2004, I came to America to meet Malcolm Clark. He’s the great-grandson of Dr. Clark, who is very famous in Japan. Malcolm Clark was responsible for introducing shitake mushrooms to America. He owns Gourmet Mushrooms in Sebastopol and lives in Occidental. Natto is an unusual food, like shitake mushrooms. I thought he could give me good advice about how to start making natto or other possibilities. That’s why the company is in Sebastopol. When I met Clark, he was thinking of retiring. I bought a stake in Gourmet Mushrooms; now Gourmet Mushrooms helps Japan Traditional Foods sell natto. I moved here in June 2008 to manage this company.

Why natto?

Americans already eat tofu, soy sauce, miso, edaname, and soy milk — but no natto. Natto is more nutritious than the other forms of soy that we currently eat. It’s more nutritious because of fermentation. It has more vitamins. A enzyme found in natto called nattokinase dissolves blood clots. In Japan natto is a traditional health food. It is usually eaten at breakfast.

How is natto made?

You boil the soybeans in a steam basket. Spray with bascillus. Put the soybeans in a paper cup. Put the cups in a fermentation container for 20-24 hours. Take them out and put in packages. Then give to the distributor. If you ferment more than 20 hours, natto bascillus start to eat themselves, which produces ammonia. Most companies stop fermenting at that point to avoid ammonia. If fermented longer, it may smell of ammonia. Japanese accept this, but Americans may not.

How big is Japan Traditional Foods?

One person plus myself. I hired someone from my natto company in Japan. He makes artisanal natto. He handcrafts it.. We put it in the paper cups by hand.

How did you get distribution?

It wasn’t hard. There are two distributors, one for Los Angeles, the other for San Francisco. They specialize in Japanese markets. Now it’s in close to 30 stores, including Korean and Chinese stores. The Los Angeles distributor wanted to sell his stuff in New York but the shipping costs would have been too high. This summer we will start going to farmer’s markets. We’ll have a  booth there to sell and sample. The goal is to educate and share recipes. We’ll be at the San Rafael Sunday market and the Ferry Building Tuesday lunchtime market. It’s a kind of test. We’re talking to distributors about getting the product into non-Japanese grocery stores, such as  Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods. From the farmer’s markets we hope to get feedback to improve the packaging, size, and recipes. We want to find the best ways to make the Western market receptive to natto. For example, we can sample it in different ways. In Japan, the most popular way to eat it is over rice with finely chopped green onions, often at breakfast. I’ve come up with many different recipes: with rice or bagel or lettuce or crackers. With different sauces and toppings.

What were the hard parts?

It was difficult to find a good temperature control system here; I had to import it from Japan. I also needed a big steam cooker, which I had to import. This was hard because it is prohibited to export them from Japan to other countries.

Your promotional leaflet says “stir natto more than twenty times” before eating it. Why?

We do not have any valid research on this. But somebody says stirring natto creates the “Fifth Taste” we call “umami.” Somebody else said that it gets the natto bacillus awake again with oxygen because the bacillus was sleeping in the refrigerator.

Rejuvenation Company (interview)

I sampled four brands of kombucha available in Berkeley; my favorite was from Rejuvenation Company. They are in Emeryville, which is close to where I live. “Can I visit your manufacturing facility?” I asked. The answer was no, but they were happy to be interviewed. So I interviewed Chris Campagna and Jerry Campagna, who are the company’s two employees. Before the interview I discovered they also made the rejuvelac I’d bought after a reader of this blog recommended it (“When I was a database administrator at Whole Foods, I used to drink it daily and never felt better”). Those are their two products: kombucha and rejuvelac.

How did your company begin?

It was started in 1983 in San Francisco by Dennis Campagna [Jerry’s brother, Chris’s uncle]. He was a health-food fanatic, a die-hard vegetarian, and a hippie. Now retired. He is ten years older than Jerry, but , Jerry says, looks younger.] At the beginning, he sold several health-food juices, such as carrot juice and wheat grass juice, but he also sold Rejuvelac. That was the part of the product line that’s lasted. He made them in a shared kitchen. Back then, there were dozens of small health food stores in San Francisco. It was a one-man show. Dennis drove around to them.

What’s rejuvelac?

A fermented grain drink. We use wheat. You sprout wheat berries with water,  ferment them for a while, then strain out the wheat berries. We’re the only company we know of that sells it.

Why do your products say “Keep Refrigerated”?

The Health Department wanted it. For years and years, they sat store shelves, not refrigerated.

When did you start making kombucha?

Five years ago. Dennis added it to his product line. It took a few years to catch on. He’d been making it for himself for years — making it, drinking it, giving it to friends. We’re tiny players in the kombucha market. Synergy is the big player. Maybe there are 10-15 manufacturers around the country, it’s hard to know the exact number. There’s no Kombucha Manufacturers Association.  Some commercial kombuchas are pasteurized; look on their websites to find out which ones. [Kombucha Wonder Drink is pasteurized.] Our kombucha isn’t pasteurized.

How has the business changed?

It used to be lots of mom-and-pop stores. The people who owned the store ran it. They recommended stuff to their customers. The customer would come in with a health problem, the owner would say, “Why don’t you try this?” Now Whole Food dominates. The emphasis has changed. The buyers want to know: Will it sell? As opposed to true quality. Nowadays, the main way we spread is that someone buys our products on a trip to San Francisco and goes home and sends us email: Where can we get it? We say: If you really want it, go to your store manager and tell him. You have a tremendous amount of clout. They listen to you. It often works out that we get a store out of that deal. We don’t do internet sales.

Over the last five years, our sales have grown a lot. Five years ago, we were mostly in San Francisco, mostly in small stores. Around 20-30 small stores. Now we’re in roughly 100-120 stores. It’s hard to have a store locator on our website because distributors don’t want to tell us who they deal with. [Their store locator page.] In the Bay Area, we’re sold at Whole Foods, Berkeley Bowl, Rainbow Grocery, plus smaller stores. In Santa Cruz, at Staff of Life. We’re moving into Whole Foods in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland. Pretty soon you should be able to get it in any Whole Foods on the West Coast.

What do your customers say?

A year ago, we got a phone call from a woman in San Francisco. I’m moving to Utah, where can I buy your product? Eight years earlier, she’d been sick. [Digestive problems, apparently.] Her doctor had given her antibiotics. She didn’t get better. She was given more antibiotics. Still didn’t get better. This went on for several months. She couldn’t eat anything. Even baby food would make her gaseous. She was turning ashen, suffering from malnutrition. Then she got a small bottle of rejuvelac. Just 30 minutes after drinking it, she felt a little better. She’d been drinking it regularly for eight years, didn’t want to be without it.

Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 15)

ROBERTS  How is it possible that Cal Tech’s basketball team was considered better than UCLA’s basketball team in the 1950s? That was the part I was amazed at.

MLODINOW At least the early part of the decade.  That was harder to understand than the Girl Named Florida Problem. I think in those days basketball was nothing–imagine saying that the Cal Tech curling team is better than the UCLA curling team. Since nobody really cares about curling it’s just a quaint fact that someone at Cal Tech, probably in the faculty, would care about curling well enough to organize a team. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit, but in the 50s I think it was a much different sport and a much different sports world. Not to belittle their team; I think they had some really good players from the looks of it and maybe Cal Tech cared more about recruiting players for sports than they do today. Maybe our world in general is a little looser about things and you could invest the time to play sports more even if you were at a high-powered place like Cal Tech; not to be as pressured–to just study. I guess it was just a different world in some ways–a nice world–back then that could happen. Now college basketball is just a huge and money generating industry that no one would allow a school like Cal Tech–by allow it I don’t mean that there’s some individual disallowing it but the world will not allow, it’s not loose enough to allow, a school that’s not completely focused on that sport to have a good team in that sport. Everything is too high-powered today.

ROBERTS Yes. Of all the things in your book, that was the most staggering.

MLODINOW You should see the movie Quantum Hoops; it’s a documentary about the Cal Tech basketball team. I recommend it.

ROBERTS I didn’t know there was such a movie.

MLODINOW It’s on DVD; I’m thinking it must be available from NetFlix.

ROBERTS Yes, I’ll get it.

MLODINOW It’s very amusing–it is for me because of my connection to Cal Tech–but I think for the general public, it’s a very amusing film.

ROBERTS We were talking about unexpected things. If you looked at the Cal Tech basketball team, if you just looked at basketball in the 1950s, you would think, ‘Well, Cal Tech–that’s as it should be.’ But then all of the sudden, 20 years later, it’s so very different.

MLODINOW I think in those days it was more like a club, like a sport, like what you think of as a kids’ fun activity and now the athletes for basketball are heavily recruited and bribed in one way or another, and the huge amounts of money at stake for the school for them. It’s a totally different calculus and it’s sad in a way, isn’t it? I think everything is like that today.

ROBERTS I guess what I’m saying is that there was something–you’re in the 1950s, it’s 1956–very few people saw that there was something hidden in basketball that could lead to what it became.

MLODINOW And if you were the superstar of that time you also didn’t get the rewards of what became today and it’s a little bit late for you now, right? I know in the bathroom in the Cal Tech cafeteria there was a framed article about him, I can’t remember his name, one of the superstars of the 50s who was one of the best basketball players to ever live–I think they claim that even today–who basically probably never even made a living from it, or not a good living.

ROBERTS Yes, that kind of brings us back to the very beginning. I feel like somehow the times have changed and people are smarter. Now you can make a living from what you’re doing. You’re writing this very entertaining intellectual history; finally there’s a market for it. Finally people are smart enough to be at your level so that you can write a book that you respect but you can get a wide enough audience.

MLODINOW Are you saying that in the 50s that couldn’t have been done? I don’t know.

ROBERTS Well, nobody did it; let’s put it that way.

MLODINOW No, nobody did it. I don’t know why.

ROBERTS As I said before we started recording, you’re the first person to ever do this. Will you be the last? I don’t know but you’re the first. You’re the first person to write intellectual histories that actually are popular and that people want to read, that they’re not forced to read by their teachers. It’s not just a tiny group of people reading them. Professors of course write them but they’re not well written and it’s just their job to write them; they get a salary from the government to write those books. You’re not getting any salary. You’re an entrepreneur and it’s just so different. Your books have to be popular or your job goes away. It’s just a different level of competence; your books are just infinitely more accessible, infinitely better than a professor would normally write. A professor is subsidized and that’s what is basically comes down to. Practically everybody who writes about science is subsidized but you’re not.

When the TV show The Simpson came along I would talk about IQ scores in my class and I talk about the fact that they had been rising and so forth. And I say, ‘Well you know there is evidence that people are getting smarter and one example is The Simpsons; this is at a higher level than other TV shows that came before it.’ Now maybe that’s not so important, how intelligent is an animated show, but I think what you’re doing is very important and I think it may be a sign of increased intelligence. There’s enough of a market now for what you’re doing. There wasn’t before.

MLODINOW I’m certainly glad that there is and that people appreciate the way I put things.

ROBERTS I’m glad because that means you can do so much more of it.

MLODINOW Yes, and I look forward to that. It’s a great privilege to be able to do that.

ROBERTS When I was a freshman at Cal Tech I was always looking for books like yours but they just didn’t exist. So I ended up reading The New Yorker for my intellectual history. That was very narrow; they never did a good job of covering science. They never talked about geometry or DeMoivre, Laplace, or Gauss. They didn’t cover those people. But those people are important. But you do; finally we have someone. It’s great.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 14)

MLODINOW As I start talking about events in the world around us and looking at the psychological components–and I dealt with that, I greatly expanded that part–they were fascinating studies and I was just so interested I just kept putting more and more into the book.

ROBERTS Yes, that’s when you decided to ask me for help. “Oh, I wasn’t planning on this.” How did you learn about the lottery winner who won twice–the Canadian?

MLODINOW It was in a book somewhere, an academic book. A lot of those interesting stories came from academic papers or books.

ROBERTS That’s interesting.

MLODINOW Sometimes I’ll find something in the newspaper that was really interesting and I would track it down but a lot of it was in academic research. I don’t know why they found it.

ROBERTS Yes, who knows where they got it, but that’s where you got it. How did you learn about the Girl Named Florida stuff? Some professor told you?

MLODINOW My friend Mark Hillery that I mentioned from Berkeley.

ROBERTS A physics professor.

MLODINOW He heard it somewhere… It wasn’t quite this problem but then I kind of tweaked it and made it the Girl Named Florida Problem. That’s a great problem for the book.

ROBERTS Yes, I loved that. So he got it from some physicist . . .

MLODINOW I’m not sure; probably. I took a few days to figure out how to make it into this problem; I don’t remember exactly the problem he told me but I tweaked it into this problem. Just to show you how much work goes into the book, I even spent a whole afternoon deciding on the name Florida. I went back into the records–I needed a rare name–and I looked up different names and tried to find one that would be colorful, interesting, but that was rarely used, and I wanted to know the percentage that it was used; I dug up percentages of names. Everything in the book . . . if you read it, it might just sound like, ‘Oh, you know’ . . .

Not a thing is just tossed out there. Or very little; there’s an amazing amount of thought and work that goes behind every little detail.

ROBERTS That’s a very memorable detail I must say. I like it better than the Monty Hall Problem.

MLODINOW I do, too. I think it’s interesting; I found in the reactions to the book that the Monty Hall Problem has gotten more press and in some ways more reactions, which I found interesting given that it has been talked about before and this problem was completely new. I think this problem is in some ways even more striking than the Monty Hall Problem, more counterintuitive and more difficult to believe and certainly closer to something you might actually encounter. And yet I’ve gotten a lot more response based on the Monty Hall Problem and a few places have said that I gave the best explanation they’ve seen. I think the New York Times review said that, too. The New York Times did mention the Girl Named Florida Problem and said that they still find it hard to believe even though they followed the explanation.

ROBERTS I thought your explanation of the Girl Named Florida problem was very clear.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 13)

ROBERTS Did the psychology stuff grow and grow? Did you add more and more than you expected?

MLODINOW Yes. As I was putting a lot of it in the end I would find other studies that really belonged earlier that I would discover, so I would go back and rewrite the earlier parts to incorporate those studies; that became a very fun part of the book, though. That was maybe the most fun, all the psychology studies that I dug out at the end.

ROBERTS How did it happen? You knew that you wanted to include some psychology and then it turned out to be more interesting than you expected?

MLODINOW In the second half of the book when I was talking more and more about viewing life as a random process that we’re going through and applying the concepts of randomness to what we’re seeing in life, I would just naturally come upon these psychology studies.

ROBERTS What fraction of the psychology you read was in the book? I was impressed that you talked about psychology studies that were really good, whereas most of them aren’t. You did a good job of selection and from teaching I know that you have to read a lot of stuff that isn’t good in order to find the good stuff.

MLODINOW What you see in the book is probably a quarter of the stuff that I read or that I thought of putting in the book. In the psychology studies maybe half of them made it into the book and I think I was good at filtering before I even read by following trails of one study leading to other studies and using either textbooks or compilation conference reports to figure out what would be good and what wouldn’t be so good.

I’m talking about half of the studies where I actually bothered to copy the papers; there are other ones, countless studies, where I would get to the abstract and dismiss it after reading the abstract or one page. That I have no way of counting, that’s just constant; maybe ten times as many. But the ones that I actually got to where I made copies . . . if I like something I will print it out because I just can’t read dozens of pages on the screen and plus I like to sit in cafés and carry it around. I guess I could bring my laptop but I tend to print them out. About half of the ones I bothered to print out I put in the book and then there were countless ones that I just dismissed.

ROBERTS Yes, I see what you mean. How did the book’s structure differ from your original proposal? Did the structure change very much?

MLODINOW Yes; I don’t remember exactly, but it did. The first chapter was not there in the proposal; the proposal started with chapter two. Then I realized that I needed an introductory chapter to really set the stage for why we’re interested in these things so for introductory chapter, which is applications to life, I start by analyzing certain situations in life that I think are surprising that people misinterpret; I thought that was a good lead-in as to why we care about this. Then I went into other chapters about developing the ideas of randomness and a lot of that was similar to the proposal although I put in less about Brownian motion and the actual drunkard’s walk itself than I think it had in there. The last several chapters, I extended the discussion about life; I think the middle part of the book is fairly similar to the proposal but the beginning and the end I expanded greatly on discussions of the everyday world and applications; the psychology was not in the original proposal nearly at the level that it was in the final book.

ROBERTS Yes, I see what you mean.

MLODINOW . . . again, as I start talking about events in the world around us and looking at the psychological components–and I dealt with that, I greatly expanded that part–they were fascinating studies and I was just so interested I just kept putting more and more into the book.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 12)

ROBERTS I have some questions about details of the book. What was the hardest part of writing the book? . . . there were no hard parts?

MLODINOW Well, I’m thinking about it and also thinking about how I interpret the word ‘hard.’ Usually ‘hard’ would mean that you’re struggling with it and I’m not sure I exactly struggled with any particular part, in a sense of . . . with all the negative connotations of the word ‘struggle,’ where I’m unsure of victory and battling and becoming exhausted and fear for my life.

I guess the part that comes to mind that I had the most doubts about whether I could get through it was the structure of the book because it weaves together three areas that are historically not that smoothly tied together–probability, statistics and the random processes. Or one united subject, like geometry, that you can see the fairly linear development and here it was more intertwined strands. I did have some trouble at first seeing the segue both in concept and tone of the book, from probability to statistics and at the end when I’m talking more about random processes and very specifically about peoples’ lives. To make that a smooth transition so it doesn’t seem like two books, a book on the concepts and another book on peoples’ lives. There was a lot about peoples’ lives in the earlier parts, too, but in the latter parts of the book, I had less and less actual mathematical concepts and almost solely psychology and sociology and discussion of peoples’ lives. Figuring out exactly how to do that–I do remember struggling with that part–I guess that was the hardest part, I would say.

One other difficult thing was that I went back–when I was talking about the Central Limit Theorem and the Law of Large Numbers–I went back and looked at the very specific work that was done by DeMoivre, Laplace, Gauss etc.  That was difficult because what they actually did is not in the form that is often attributed to them today.  I went back and tried to disentangle what they actually showed and tried to figure out what they were thinking, rather than just talking about the modern form of the theorem in textbooks and attributing it to them.


MLODINOW That took a lot of effort to figure out. I actually went back and found some of the original calculations.

ROBERTS In a library somewhere? In a manuscript?

MLODINOW They’re in academic books–there are several academic books, so I found some academic books (academic press books, I mean) that presented their actual calculations. I went through those in order to figure out and explain the differences between what they actually did and what the offshoot of their work looks like today.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 11)

ROBERTS I think that if you take the different things that happened to you and you measured their effect, the effects will have a power-law distribution. A tiny number will have a huge effect . . .


ROBERTS . . . and a large number will have very little effect. But I guess you could shift the slope of that power-law distribution if you were smart. My research with rats has involved measuring how long they hold the bar down when they press the bar and it turns out that has a power-law distribution.

MLODINOW That’s interesting. Why is it that they hold it down with a power-law distribution rather than, let’s say, a normal distribution?

ROBERTS Why? I think it’s because the way the cerebellum is constructed. I think it has to do with . . . the brain is a network and it’s much easier to get a power-law distribution out of a network than out of a non-network and it’s revealing of the mechanism that produces the bar presses. It’s revealing that it comes from a very networked structure and a little bit more than that, too. It’s not only networked, it’s also chain reactioning and it sheds some light on the mechanism that’s producing the bar presses and that mechanism is not so far from what we see in the cerebellum, which has these incredible density of neurons, highly interconnected neurons. So that’s the connection.

MLODINOW Interesting.

ROBERTS That’s the best I can say as to the why. Clearly evolution designed the brain to solve the problems that animals encounter and why does the cerebellum have the structure it does? Because this power-law distribution is a good idea. Normal distribution is probably too conservative, whereas the power-law distribution is . . . every now and then it’s searching much more widely.

MLODINOW Searching for . . . to see if holding it down less or more amount of time will have any effect, so the power-law you will have some of those explorations into holding it down not long or extra long and therefore sometimes discover something new, rather than really more narrow . . . in a narrow band holding it down a certain number of milliseconds or whatever.

ROBERTS I would guess that the brain has been shaped to produce the power-law distribution in those operations and I think there’s probably other patterns of variability in other aspects of behavior but this is the one we measured.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 10)

ROBERTS What did you think of The Black Swan on the same topic?

MLODINOW It’s on the topic of how little things can cause big changes, you mean, and . . .

ROBERTS And how poorly we understand what really matters.

MLODINOW  I haven’t read the book from beginning to end so it’s hard to comment on that.

ROBERTS What about his previous book? There are similar ideas in the two books.

MLODINOW I didn’t really notice that book when I started writing Drunkard’s Walk; I wasn’t aware of the book. I had looked–in the library–gone through tons of books that seemed somehow related to randomness and somehow that one didn’t stand out to me. Sometime later it came out in paperback and it got very popular. Then I rediscovered it, and yes, I agree with a lot of what he says in that first book, but I still never read it from cover to cover. I’m not the type who feels compulsive about reading everything that’s been written on the subject that I’m writing on.

ROBERTS Yes. I always think of his book as being about these very long-tailed distributions–not only about that, but they play a large role–whereas you didn’t mention long-tailed distributions in your book.

MLODINOW Not explicitly, but I did talk about that idea and certainly the idea that not everything follows a normal distribution and how important it is to note that, for instance in Hollywood–Hollywood box office receipts. But I think The Black Swan was exclusively about that, so in that sense it was a different topic.

[For readers who don’t know what that is, if you’re talking about the probability of events occurring–let’s say you’re talking about the probability of a movie making a certain amount of money–there may be a mean amount of money that a movie makes or that a movie of that type makes. Then there will be fluctuations around it; some movies will make more, some movies will make less. The normal distribution is a distribution of the revenues that would follow a bell curve and the long-tailed distribution differs. One of the important respects that it differs in is that it has a lot more results that are far from the average that you would expect in a normal distribution. So if the average movie makes $1,000,000 or to be more realistic let’s say the average movie makes $50,000,000 and if it was normally distributed you would have, depending on the variance, but let’s just say you would have a certain number that make 40 or would make 60 and another small number would make 30 or 70 and you have a very small number indeed–probably practically zero–that would make $500,000,000. In Hollywood the way it really works is there are more that differ that far from the median than you would have if it were a normal distribution. That’s what they call a long-tailed distribution–the number of occurrences that are far from the average is much higher than you would expect with the normal distribution. — LM]

So that applies in many areas of life as well. I think that translated into what we were just talking about, it means that these little minor incidents can have major effects on you. It’s not all kind of pushed toward the mean effect, which is just going into my office and doing more physics.

ROBERTS Yes, I think that if you take the different things that have happened to you and you measured their effect, the effects will have a power-law distribution. A tiny number will have a huge effect and . . .


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